Talkin’ Bout the Squished Generation

A Six Minute Read

Sunday’s Times featured a column on the tragedy of getting called out for tapping out meeting notes on a phonepeopleits drama stemming from a natural assumption that the teen-aged author had been texting (such misbehavior is not limited to boardroom youth; we all know plenty of adults who can’t resist).

His protest of “I hadn’t even checked my Twitter feed in two hours” sounds like the selfless dedication President Kennedy called for in his inaugural, yet the whole enterprise rings false. Since taking notes on laptops is woefully ineffective, compared to scribbling in an old-fashioned notebook, it seems reasonable to presume that thumb-typing notes on a four-inch screen is close to useless.

What I find most galling is the sheer hubris – the column’s author is also, at the age of 17, penning a book called “How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace”. Not “How It Will” or “How It Can”, but “How It Is”. By someone who is still in high school (and, presumably, not yet in The Workplace)! I know this makes me sound like a Frisbee-keeping crank, but it is hard enough not to bristle when “the new guy” shows up with his “better way of doing things” (speaking as a former wise-ass “New Guy” myself), but these digital dilettantes who hijack meetings and then demand that they participate their way feels delusionally destructive. When did this become okay?

What happened to showing up the first day on the job, and, like everyone that came before, being told What to Do and How to Do It (or Else)? Now that my generation is finally in a position to call the shots, the next wave has stormed Cubicle Beach to declare What to Do and How to Do It (and Get Over It).

Wait, what? How are we stuck in the middle? How did we become the Squished Generation?

A Very Incomplete (and Uninformed)

(and Chronologically Suspect)

History of the American Managerial Class

Thirty years ago or so, I read in the Wall Street Journal of the oncoming death of bureaucratic management. Post-World War II Corporate America was led by men (chiefly) who learned how to function, organizationally, in the military. Twelve million men were on active duty in 1945; when they traded their olive drab for gray flannel, they were already accustomed to colonels passing orders to majors and captains, who would disseminate them to lieutenants, who would see that work was delegated.

It may not have been the most efficient, but it was brutally effective. There was little room to question the mission, or an individual’s role in it. Tasks were assigned to avoid failure, more than to attain success, and creative thinking was not necessarily the order of the day. (There’s a reason why the “Outside the Box” brainteaser teases the brain). You could get shit done, but you had to do the paperwork.

By the 1970’s, this managerial class was retiring – right as the rebels from the 60’s were coming aboard. The military mindset was fast becoming yesterday’s vibe. Many that served did not enter the Corporation and flaunt their adherence to code. Just as in the world at large, the Organization Man bristled at the formality and structure of the very structure of the organization.

Whether it was oil prices, Japanese cunning, President Carter telling us to put on a damn sweater, or the 1986 tax revision, things were not in good shape. Remnants of the bureaucracy stood in place, but its architects were gone. The rules remained, but the rationale was gone and order suffered. We were saddled with a lot of the “What” of that post-military structure, but completely lacked the “Why”. Thus, it was easy to get sucked, drone-like, into a pattern of inefficient and ineffective behavior. It didn’t help that birthrates had dropped a quarter-century earlier, introducing fewer people to maintain the bureaucracy.

As global competition increased, the generals of the past were replaced by Masters of the Universe. Margins became tighter while the marketplace became more adversarial (and owners become more demanding). There was still shit to do, so workers were needed, and senior managers of course took care of themselves, so the place to cut was in between.

For example, in 1985, my hotel had two directors with oversight of six managers to run Room Service, the Front Desk, luggage service, the garage, restocking minibars, and the switchboard. There would have been 13 assistant managers and 19 hourly supervisors. By 1997, we added a “Business Center”, but were now down to four supervisors, five assistant managers, and two managers – reporting to one director. Similar cuts had been made across all other operating divisions.

By now, Generation X was knotting its Windsors, learning to navigate the bureaucracy we did not understand, and being told it was time to “do more with less”. How? By “working smarter, not harder”, of course. PCs dropped on our desks, as we learned to write memos without administrative assistance; once cc:Mail came online, we were able to distribute these at a breakneck pace. It was called “Empowerment”.

The environments were more complex, now with fewer people both leading them and working in them. Bureaucracies could not support normal operations and project-based work. By this time, the “matrix organization” had been introduced, in part to ensure this all got doled out (much less done). What it also introduced was a yawning chasm of missed (and mis-) communication, confounded expectations, and a generally befuddled workforce. When people (okay, nerds) need shorthand to describe the confusing dystopia that is slowly sucking the life out of them, they refer to The Matrix; whether in film or on the org chart, a matrix kills dreams.

Meanwhile, Gen X’ers – even though we were lost professionally, culturally, spiritually, financially, you name it – decided to introduce a new batch of critters into the world.

Others have written – certainly more scholarly – about “helicopter parenting” and “participation trophies” and how that has doomed these “Millennials”. Their parents and grandparents no longer trust The System, are trapped in processes that don’t make sense, and fundamentally lack security. Forget Fred Rogers’ admonition to make tomorrow a better day, we just hope we survive tomorrow.

Is it any wonder that Kids Today show up for work with little sense of professionalism and even less intellectual humility? With a destructive tendency to issue manifestos and reinvent things because they can’t figure out how to make them work (Uber, “Agile” project management)?

This breakdown in structure means less hierarchy and more anarchy; a reduction in governance has transformed matrices into webs, where flat and fast communication is necessary – and yet still a distraction.

I tend to use “bureaucracy” as a pejorative – yet there was something to it, that allowed people to assimilate, learn the flows and rhythms of an organization, and how to manage the politics, before attempting to change everything. Dwell time. Disruptive change – particularly from an outsider – for the sole purpose of disruption has a harder time of succeeding, let alone sustaining any gain. Being uncomfortable with the Status Quo is fine, but first one should understand before reëngineering; otherwise, we focus on the “how” without understanding the “why”.

And that brings us back to my Squished Generation. Scolded into a bureaucratic matrix by our predecessors, we are onboarding people into a world we can’t comprehend, much less explain. So when some twerp pulls a toy out of his pocket – while calling it a “vital tool” – and offers to “text his notes”, of course no one is prepared to tell him why it is inappropriate, or to offer leadership on how to engage with the rest of the team.

Each successive wave comes out of Orientation (or, skipping it entirely in favor of using the app) and demands a greater say, whether they have an informed opinion or not. We cannot combat this with “Listen here, tiger, here’s how it’s done” – if for no other reason, it’s tougher than ever to defend the position.

How do we fix this? We still need to get things done, and the lifecycle of new ideas is getting shorter and shorter?

I suspect it has to do with creating and communicating shared purpose and articulating a sense of dedication. In other words, understanding and setting clear expectations. I’ve written about it before. I suspect I’ll do it again.